NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Davidson County judge ruled the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency illegally searched the home of a Davidson County woman.
TWRA agents raided the home of Holly Lamar in August and seized all 13 of her captive-bred, birds of prey, including falcons and an owl.
Five months later, one of the rare falcons taken by agents died in state custody.
This week, Judge Lynda Jones ruled the search warrant was "invalid" and demanded that TWRA return all of the seized birds to Lamar.
The ruling means many of the 30 misdemeanor criminal charges TWRA filed against Lamar will likely be dropped.
"It has probably been the worst five months of my entire life," said Holly Lamar.
She remembers being traumatized the day TWRA agents raided her property and seized all of her birds.
"They were taking my children, my babies, many of which are imprints that I raised from like ten days old," Lamar said.
Lamar said she put her life savings into a business that provided bird experiences to people on her land in Davidson County.
She had been operating for more than a year when TWRA seized the birds claiming she had more than her permits allowed.
But emails show she had contacted TWRA dozens of times about permits.
She said she could not get a straight answer about what was needed.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "When you saw them taking the birds, did you know where they were going?"
"No, I had no clue, but I knew it wasn't as good as where they were," Lamar said.
Agents took the birds to a nearby animal rehabilitation facility.
But over Christmas one of her most valuable birds - a rare Peregrine Falcon named Faith - died while in TWRA custody.
"This didn't have to happen," Lamar said.
After the falcon died, a judge allowed her to take video of the conditions where her birds were staying.
"She's been kept in a small kennel for months - without being taken out. She obviously wasn't taken out," Lamar said of a kestrel she recorded in a kennel.
She found birds tethered, unable to move much at all.
"How can you possibly say they are better off tethered for five months without being able to fly?" Lamar said.
The judge allowed Lamar to take five of her birds home.
TWRA kept the birds for months before ever charging Lamar with a crime.
When they did, it was 30 misdemeanor counts - mostly involving having more birds than permits allowed.
But agents said they found a "dry water bowl and decaying food on the floor" and a dead falcon in her freezer.
"They didn't allege in their search warrant that I was abusing these birds. They didn't allege anything other than I had more than the number I was supposed to have," Lamar said.
In court this week, TWRA agents said they didn't know why the falcon died in their custody.
Agents testified the birds were well cared for by trained rehabbers.
They said they seized the birds because Lamar exceeded the number of birds allowed by her permit.
In a statement, TWRA said it is "committed to ensuring captive wildlife are protected from negligent and improper care."
It also said, "At all times after the seizure, the birds were housed by a licensed raptor rehabilitator in approved facilities while in the custody of the state. Unfortunately, a 7-year-old bird did not survive. A full necropsy is being done to try and determine the cause of the death."
Lamar's attorney Ben Raybin, who is an expert in bird law, argued in court that the search warrant was illegal.
"The state of bird law under TWRA is not governed by reason," Raybin said.
Judge Lynda Jones ruled the seizures were made "illegally with an invalid search warrant."
Judge Jones said Lamar may have a case for malicious prosecution and called the TWRA's permitting laws "vague" and "ambiguous."
She demanded that TWRA return all of Lamar's birds immediately.
"My constitutional rights were violated, the judge said it," Lamar said outside court.
"We've said from day one this was illegal, and it should never have happened," Raybin said.
The good news for Lamar is, after five months, she has all her birds back but only after her prized falcon died.
"I honestly believe she died as a sacrifice to bring this to the attention of people and to save the other birds," Lamar said.
Here is the full statement from TWRA:
"The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) is committed to protecting wildlife. In pursuit of that mission, officers acted quickly and in consultation with the District Attorney’s office to take action on a case involving 13 birds of prey. TWRA is committed to ensuring captive wildlife are protected from negligent and improper care.
At all times after seizure, the birds were housed by a licensed raptor rehabilitator in approved facilities while in the custody of the state. Unfortunately, a 7-year-old bird did not survive. A full necropsy is being performed to try to determine the cause of death, and appropriate corrective actions will be taken if warranted. These birds are known to have an average lifespan of 5-7 years in the wild, making old age a potential contributing factor in its death.
TWRA is committed to continuously evolving policy and regulations to improve law enforcement procedure and the conservation of birds of prey and other wildlife species. Agency leadership and wildlife officers have actively sought input from the Tennessee Falconers Association to ensure their voices have been heard on this issue. We make every effort to educate the public about proper care and handling, but the Agency is tasked with pursuing enforcement when violations persist after education efforts fail.
All TWRA wildlife officers have earned a degree in Wildlife Science or Biology, and in addition to generalized law enforcement training, have received specialized wildlife law enforcement training to be able to identify wildlife-related violations. Additional training occurs during the Agency’s annual law enforcement in-service to ensure officers are properly executing casework.
A court-issued search warrant was obtained for evidence collection in this case. Once TWRA submits a case to the judicial system, it is within the District Attorney’s purview to decide whether the evidence warrants further action. The Agency appreciates its cooperative relationship with state-wide prosecutorial authorities and will continue to work with those authorities moving forward.
At this time, litigation is still ongoing, and the Agency will refer all additional questions on the case to the District Attorney’s office."